Japan eathquake evacuees - Reuters - March 11, 2011
Evacuees stand around Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo after a 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit Japan on March 11, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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The massive 8.9 magnitude earthquake that rocked Japan on Friday was described by witnesses as one of the strongest quakes they had every experienced.

Jesse Johnson, a native of the U.S. state of Nevada who lives in Chiba, north  of Tokyo, was eating at a sushi restaurant with his wife when the quake hit.

"At first it didn't feel unusual, but then it went on and on. So I got myself and my wife under the table," he told the Associated Press. "I've lived in Japan for 10 years, and I've never felt anything like this before. The aftershocks keep coming. It's gotten to the point where I don't know whether it's me shaking or an earthquake."

The quake, which was the fifth most powerful one to hit the world in the past century, triggered a 10-meter tsunami in the northeastern city of Sendai that swept away everything in its path, including houses, ships, cars and farm buildings on fire.

Japan's state broadcaster NHK said more than 4 million buildings were without power in Tokyo and its suburbs. As night fell, the streets were jammed with cars, buses and trucks trying to get around and out of the city. Pedestrians swarmed the sidewalks to walk home, or at least find a warm place to spend the night as the temperatures dropped.

Tomoko Suzuki and her elderly mother stood on a crowded corner in central Tokyo, unable to get up to their 29th-floor condominium because the elevator wasn't working. They unsuccessfully tried to hail a taxi to go to a relative's house. They called around to dozens of hotels, but they were full.

"We are so cold," said Suzuki. "We really don't know what to do."

"I was terrified and I'm still frightened," said Hidekatsu Hata, 36, manager of a Chinese noodle restaurant in Tokyo, where buildings shook violently. "I've never experienced such a big quake before."

There were several strong aftershocks. In Tokyo, there was widespread panic. An oil refinery near the city was on fire, with dozens of storage tanks under threat.

"People are flooding the streets. It's incredible. Everyone is trying to get home but I didn't see any taxis in Ginza, where there are usually plenty," said Koji Goto, a 43-year-old Tokyo resident.

TV footage showed a muddy wall of water carrying debris across a large swathe of coastal farmland near the city of Sendai, which has a population of one million. Ships in once coastal area were lifted from the sea into a harbour where they lay helplessly on their side.

Sendai is 300 km northeast of Tokyo and the epicenter at sea was not far away.

NHK television showed flames and black smoke billowing from a building in Odaiba, a Tokyo suburb, and bullet trains to the north of the country were halted. Thick smoke was also pouring out of an industrial area in Yokohama's Isogo area. TV showed residents of the city running out of shaking buildings, shielding their heads with their hands from falling masonry.

TV footage showed boats, cars and trucks tossed around like toys in the water after a small tsunami hit the town of Kamaichi in northern Japan. An overpass, location unknown, appeared to have collapsed and cars were turning around and speeding away.

"The building shook for what seemed a long time and many people in the newsroom grabbed their helmets and some got under their desks," Reuters correspondent Linda Sieg said in Tokyo. "It was probably the worst I have felt since I came to Japan more than 20 years ago."

Passengers on a subway line in Tokyo screamed and grabbed other passengers' hands during the quake. The shaking was so bad it was hard to stand, said Reuters reporter Mariko Katsumura.

Crowds gathered in front of televisions in a shop next to the drugstore for details. After the shaking from the first quake subsided, crowds watched and pointed to construction cranes on an office building up the street with voices saying, "They're still shaking!", "Are they going to fall?"

Asagi Machida, 27, a web designer in Tokyo, sprinted from a coffee shop when the quake hit.

"The images from the New Zealand earthquake are still fresh in my mind so I was really scared. I couldn't believe such a big earthquake was happening in Tokyo."

Japan's northeast Pacific coast, called Sanriku, has suffered from quakes and tsunamis in the past and a 7.2 quake struck on Wednesday. In 1933, a magnitude 8.1 quake in the area killed more than 3,000 people.

Earthquakes are common in Japan, one of the world's most seismically active areas. The country accounts for about 20 percent of the world's earthquakes of magnitude 6 or greater.